Monday, March 13, 2017

13th Place, 3rd Place, and Life Lessons on Attitude and Racing Mentality; Part 2

The Kachemak Nordic Marathon is by far my favorite course in Alaska. I wish every race was as hard as this one, and as scenic. Surrounded by Cook Inlet, Kachemak Bay, three volcanoes and glaciated mountains on all sides, there is no prettier venue than this. That alone would make this a great race, but man, this course is as close to backcountry skiing and mountain biking as you can get on a pair of skinny skis. The Marathon Connector Trail, a 15Km overland route that links Homer’s Look Out Mountain and Bay Crest trail systems is Rowdy with a capital R.

A fuzzy shot of yours truly and a photo op I scored with the winner of the ladies 25k :)
 
 
This season was no exception.

Cold, clear, dry and windy winters are generally no fun, but they do benefit one place, and that is Homer. With only rudimentary grooming equipment available to punch in the Marathon Connector Trail, the wind can play a big role in firming up the route and filling in the many steep ravines. In years where the snow has been deep and plentiful, this link can be 15Kms of unforgiving punchiness.

This year, conditions were pretty solid, although a tad thin.

I signed on for the 25KM race. I did the 42KM in 2012 when I was a lot stronger under the guise of, you get more bang for your buck. I MUCH prefer the 25km route though. I like the beginning of the 42, and I envied those racers skiers on their route out through the rolling hills of “Milli’s World” that the 25KM racers miss out on. Where I don’t envy the 42km racers is when they get to Bay Crest. The 25km racers dive bomb down the bluffs in a screaming fast and fun descent to the finish taking the cleanest route. The 42KM skiers however, are denied, and sent on side loops that interrupt the flow so that they get all their additional KMs.

No thanks!

The short
1:33:35; 3/20 overall
 
The long
The 42 and 25 racers all went out together, there were around 60 of us total I guess, about 30 in each race, and as we all did the first 5km together on a loop around Look Out, it was kind of sporty.

Look Out has some descent pitch, and some sneaky hard corners lying in wait. I found pretty quick that I was having to make some sprinty passes to get out in front. For the most part, the first 5km was very wide, making passing easy, though there was at least one section where I found myself and a train of others sitting behind a skier and unable to make a pass. There didn’t seem to be a reason to be a jerk and go crazy so early on, especially given that some people alongside weren’t even in the same race, but there was certainly an opportunity for two younger-looking skiers to take off and build a small and early lead.

Eventually, the two events diverged at a funny spot where the course appeared fully gated, save a 3-foot opening on either side of the fencing. The 25 went one way, the 42 the other.

Instantly, it was less chaotic.

From what I could tell, there were only two other skiers with me at this point, Dan B and Louis. I actually didn’t know about Louis immediately.

We sped across the flats and headed out onto the Marathon Trail, where we went from wide, smooth trails, to narrow, choppy, variable, and twisty.

So it begins!

The descent out of Look Out was possibly the scariest. Louis came bombing through relatively quick in the initial shorter descent to a bench with the first aid station, and it was obvious he knew the trails. Dan and I latched on, but as we made a short climb off the bench, I passed, and then began the first descent in earnest.

I scared myself silly at one point as I passed the point of having control, and hung on through a series of tight choppy corners doing everything I could to stay upright. One of the corners was off camber and I hardly held my edge. Another corner slammed through a ravine with only a short shot to speed check, banking a hard and narrow right at the bottom. The outside of the right was a wall of compact snow, and the trail was only one lane wide. I could practically see my ski tips impaling themselves on that outer embankment.

I’ve skied this route enough to know what’s coming, to recall all major features, as well as most of the scariest technical aspects and ravines, but the finer details are lost. Also, a thinner snow pack this year meant the trail was a bit more narrow than I recall in places.

With overcast skies and even a bit of light snow falling, lighting was flat in sections, making it difficult to spot ski-grabbing ruts or uneven groomer gouges with more than a fraction of a second of notice.

Eventually, Louis and Dan came around, and that helped a ton.

We bottomed out of the first descent, and began the climb up Crossman Ridge. This is the first major climb of the route.

I settled in for a couple minutes, the pace wasn’t bad, and even though the trail was groomed wider, it was still soft and punchy off the center.

Throughout the course, poling was punchy – maybe every 15th pole plant would punch through anywhere from a couple inches to a couple feet. On flats and such, it was no problem, but on all steeper pitches this meant I had to compensate with more leg power.

I knew I was at a disadvantage to the locals who trained on these softer trails and were less reliant on upper body power. It scared me as I felt the legs start to burn a bit more than they should have on some of the climbs and I couldn’t relieve them.

After a couple minutes into climb up Crossman I could feel my pace was no longer matched with Dan and Louis, and the trail firmed up enough to feel good about coming around.

For the remainder of the climb I held a small lead over the two. I was climbing just a titch faster than they were.

I knew what this meant: The long brutal climb up Dimond Ridge that awaited us all would be my only place to try and distance myself if neither Dan or Louis dropped off before than, otherwise, it’d be a sprint after 25km…

We topped out Crossman Ridge, and going through the aid station I grabbed a cup of water. Dan and Louis closed that gap immediately.

We began the slow and winding descent to Bridge Creek. I know this area well enough, and one of the memories I had from 2012 was that I skied too conservatively. The trail here is mostly in the forest and follows a twisting, switch-backing logging road of sorts. The hair pin turns are tight, and I was nervous about them back in 2012, only to realize they were fine that year.

This year, they were a bit choppier, so, despite wanting to cut it loose, I really couldn’t feel comfortable.

One prominent feature this year was alder stumps and branches poking through the trail. Most had been cut and ground down, but they were often lurking and ready to snag a ski or worse. This section had a lot.

Along the descent, I passed Tasha and Sadie doing the tour, and they gave me a cheering boost and tandem pole taps.

There were enough short breaks in the descent that I could just barely maintain my lead, but at some point near the final descent into the creek, Louis skied up next to me.

I don’t recall if he passed or moved back in behind me, but I know that as we bottomed out, we were fully bunched, and I was leading.

We hit the vertical-looking  Kill Bill Hill out of the creek bed and it was time to go. I slammed the steep trail. Fortunately it was decently firm in this section.

I continued to dig in everywhere I could along the lolly-gagging 600-vertical-foot endless climb that tortures every skier into thinking they are done, only to steer back, ever upward. I knew better of the climb, but to my dismay, whenever I glanced back, it seemed that Louis and Dan were never more than 15 seconds behind.

I few times I thought I was starting to build a lead, that they were alas fading, only to glance back a few minutes later and see they were still there and no farther back.

It stressed me out that they were together. I could take one of them, but two guys meant they were working together, and that I’d have to fend off two placements in the final rush to the finish line.

The fabled Milk Toast ravine came and went. It was in really good shape, much better than most the other ravines, and I actually came at it with more speed than I really should have.

I want to say that somewhere in that area, Dan detached from Louis. I don’t know for sure, but as we went into the final part of the ascent, I noticed it was only Louis chasing. The trail got a lot worse near the top, softer and more wind-blown powder and debris. The legs screamed a little louder. At some point here, I saw a skier not too far up ahead in a multi-colored kit that I’d spotted once or twice before. This was as close as I would come to second place, though I had no idea of this. All I knew was that there were probably 2 skiers in front of me, but maybe more.

Finally, I hit the Dimond Ridge Road crossing and the smiling volunteers.

I slowed to snag another sip of water at the aid station, and Louis came alongside. Dan was nowhere in sight.

Time to let gravity take over.

We wrapped around the shoulder of the ridge on trails that were notably smoother and firmer. I felt my poles hitting with confidence. Louis started to pull away a bit, and knowing I had to keep him in sight for the descent or risk falling behind, I tucked a little tighter and reeled him in. The descent would have been slower without Louis as a guide. Even though it’s fairly straight, the clouds were a little darker, and lighting was very flat.

Once the trail hit the flats, I skied right up into Louis’ slipstream. I could see Dan about 20 second behind us.

As we entered a tunnel of conifers I realized I could go a bit faster and did not want to let this turn into a 3-way. I came around. Louis clipped on.

The finish was at a new spot for me this year, so I wasn’t exactly sure what was coming, when we blazed by the 1km sign.

“Should I start to drill it? I have a lot of gas left. What if there’s a steep pitch to the line and I tow Louis right to it so he launches around me?”

“F-It. Go hard. See if he can hang on.”

I turned the screws, and started making some gentle zags across the trail to break the effect of the slip stream.

Suddenly we blurred by the finish line off to our right. It was going to come up fast!

“Wait, the trail is going out and away from the line. Is it going to do a loop? How much farther out could it go? This isn’t really a KM! Hold the pace!”

The finish made a wide loop up a false flat. I hadn’t really looked in a minute, but for the first time, I could see I had broken the slipstream and Louis was no longer on my tails, but was still only second back.

The course looped around and made an easy gradual flat downhill to the line. I held the pace to the line just in case. Louis was 10 seconds back, and Dan 10 seconds behind him for the final.

What. A. Race.

So what’s the big lesson to be learned this year?

When I finished the TOA in 2010, 11, and 12, there was a lot of frustration, and actually, tears for the latter two. The tears, they weren’t necessarily that big a deal, in long events, I apparently have a thin margin with my emotions, but as much as I trained, and as much emotional energy ass I put into the event, my results sucked. I’m not just talking placement either. In a race that attracted 1500-2000 entrants (in it’s day), you can’t put a lot of stock in placement, but damn, my seemingly realistic goals felt helplessly out of reach.

And yes, it didn’t help that my placement results were deflating too.

In general, I was just frustrated with Nordic skiing. It seemed I had few cohorts to actually race with, and spreading them out over a 50km event, meant much of the race was spent by oneself, racing a clock.

In all of this, in the end, I still wanted to do the best skiing of any week, and the year, on wider boards in the mountains.

In a way, an injury finally fully freed me to do that guiltlessly. I stopped thinking about Nordic racing all together, with amazing ease.

Between the weather – a couple absolutely miserable snow years for Anchorage dashed tour hopes, and Nordic dreams, for anyone in town, and motivation, my skiing backed WAY off.

This year though, has obviously been good, and I’ve just totally been enjoying skiing, with no competitive goals to speak of.

When I did sign up to compete, I threw out the “bigger is better mantra” of the 50km or 42km events, went for the ones I knew I’d enjoy, and did just that, enjoyed them.

I was rewarded with a great experience in Anchorage, and a legit head-to-head race in Homer. For sure, I could have got another 17km of skiing in Homer if I’d done the 42, but, I also would have had a way different experience, and quite likely, less of an actual race. Never once during either event did I seriously consider if I’d signed on for the wrong race.

Does that mean I’d never do the 50km TOA, or 42KM Kachemak again?

No, that’s just the thing, if I want to do either, clearly I should, but, for now, I’ve reached some point of balance, and that’s what I need to focus on and maintain.